The Last Bear

Teddy Roosevelt, race suicide and the killing of Orange County's last grizzly

Roosevelt's service in Cuba made him a national hero and secured him the position of vice president on the winning Republican ticket in 1900. The assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 made him president. Once in office, he created some of the means by which modern presidents manage their public images.

"As president," sociologist William Gibson writes, "Roosevelt hired the first full-time press secretary. He also instituted private interviews with correspondents and began to choreograph both his official and social activities for news photographers, including the early film crews." Combining his dynamic personality with careful image management made Roosevelt the dominant national figure in the first decade of the 20th century. In all of America, only Niagara Falls rivaled Roosevelt as a popular spectacle, in the opinion of the English politician and writer John Morley. The success of the Teddy Bear both resulted from and added to Roosevelt's tremendous popularity.

Real bears, though, were not popular –and particularly unpopular was Ursus arctos californicus, the California grizzly.

To the native peoples of California, the grizzly was a powerful and respected presence. Tribes throughout the state had grizzly shaman, who tried to channel the seemingly indestructible power of the bear (grizzlies were remarkable for being able to survive injuries that would have killed any other animal) in healing and other rituals. But the grizzly also played other roles in belief systems of the California Indians. In Chiningchinich, an Historical Account of the Beliefs, Usages, Customs and Extravagancies of the Indians of This Mission of San Juan Capistrano Called the Acagchemem Tribe, written by the missionary Geronimo Boscano in the early 1820s, the grizzly is depicted as an enforcer of the divine order. A severe transgression against the just order of things would result in the grizzly coming to punish the transgressors. The grizzly was essential in maintaining the stability of the world.

To European settlers, however, the grizzly was a menace. The first recorded killing of a grizzly occurred in 1769, the same year Spanish colonists arrived in California. The grizzly was seen as a threat to people, a belief driven by fear of such massive animals rather than any real evidence. Grizzlies, as California writers from the end of the 18th century into the 20th century agreed, tried to avoid people and rarely attacked unless already wounded by a hunter or if a mother bear perceived a danger to her cubs. More realistically, grizzlies were considered a threat to livestock.

Spectacular stories of grizzlies attacking pigs, sheep and cattle are plentiful–though most are second-hand and almost all have a tinge of hyperbole. Grizzlies, whose diet largely consisted of acorns and roots, certainly did attack livestock, but for the most part, they probably settled for eating the carcasses of animals killed by predators who preferred live prey, such as wolves. The grizzly, paradoxically, occupied both the top and the bottom of the food chain: it was the apex predator, but it was also a scavenger, devouring the leftovers from the kills of others. And it was this scavenger nature that ranchers counted on in their battle against the bears.

The methods used on Don Jose Sepulveda's Rancho San Joaquin, one of the largest ranchos in what would become Orange County, were typical of Spanish grizzly management. Vaqueros would slaughter a cow and leave the remains in area known to be frequented by grizzlies–Santiago and Limestone canyons were considered prime grizzly territory. The vaqueros would withdraw to a safe distance and wait. Eventually, a bear would appear, and after it had begun eating, the mounted vaqueros would swoop down on the bear and lasso its feet with riatas. Rendered immobile, the bear would then either be stabbed to death with lances or torn apart as the vaqueros holding the riatas galloped off in opposite directions.

As the grizzlies declined in number and the surviving bears moved farther from human settlement, this sort of hunting continued, but with one notable change: bears were more frequently taken alive to be used in such entertainments as bear and bull fights. The grizzly had gone from menace to source of amusement.

The Englishman Frank Marryat, who wrote one of the most accurate descriptions of these fights, found nothing amusing about them, calling them "the most cruel and senseless" thing he had seen in California. (Marryat was by no means a green in the current sense of the word. In his 1855 book, Mountains and Molehills, he recounts with pride killing a grizzly cub he happened across while hunting, even though he says he found the cub to be perfectly harmless and extremely cute.)

The bear, cramped in his limbs by the strict confinement that his strength and ferocity have rendered necessary, is placed in the arena; and attached to him by a rope is a bull, generally of fine shape and courage and fresh from the mountains. Neither animal has fair play, and, indeed, in most instances, each one avoids the other. The bull's power of attack is weakened by the shortness of the tether, while the bear, as above mentioned, has scarcely the free use of his muscles. . . . The fight generally ends without much damage on either side, for the simple reason that neither of the combatants means mischief.
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